Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spur of the Moment

The environment where Gem is boarded is Western, so everyone has spurs on their boots, even the younger riders. I sometimes sit and watch some of the kids ride their horses. Always the poke poke poke action going on. Not hard, but just enough to remind the horse and keep her/him focused.

I really thought that learning to ride without the use of artificial aids was the way to go for me. I wanted to be able to communicate with Gem using my body. But, I had a couple of things going against me: my physical condition (what condition!) and over-thinking each and every little thing.

It became apparent fairly quickly that I was not able to make Gem focus on me or what was expected of him. His mind would drift off constantly, to the point that he would daze over and trip over his own feet. He would get bored and start resisting my cues. I tried going au naturel for the first few lessons and but then had to resort to using a crop to gently remind Gem to focus.

LA has this rule that you ask nicely the first time and if there is no response, then ask a little more forcefully. But you always give your horse a chance to respond before you ask more assertively. Count one, two. Gem rarely responded to my timid taps with my heels. To add to the mix, I found that I was focusing more on when to start counting one, two than on what the message was!! By the time it came to give him a more forceful kick or to using the crop, the communication link was broken. Timing was everything and my timing was way off!

Eventually, I was able to improve my timing. But then there was a new issue. It was like Gem had become desensitized to my "assertive" cues or corrections. In particular, we have the same issue at the same spot when trotting around the arena. As we come up the wall on our left side, he has a habit of bending away from the wall and sort of trotting sideways into the middle of the arena. I don't know why it's always the same spot. It has nothing to do with the arena; he does the same thing outside in the front paddock. I started anticipating this move and would try to keep my inside leg on him pushing him over. Sometimes this worked and sometimes he would push against my leg and start bending to the middle of the arena. I tried using the rein of opposition and tapping my inside leg on to push him back to the wall. This was hit and miss. Eventually, I would have to hoof him with my inside leg to get his attention and then 'push' him over. Having to lift my inside leg off of his side to hoof him naturally would throw me off balance. *sigh*

Don't get me wrong, not all of my lessons are a fight with Gem. I manage. Gem is all hugs and cuddles when it comes to grooming or being hand walked around. But work? He has to be in the right frame of mind. :-) There was a positive outcome of having to correct him regularly though - my balance has improved.

Heading into winter, the stables organized an event where 20 riders did a choreographed holiday performance. I couldn't commit to the practice days, so I asked Jean if she would ride Gem. I thought it would be good for him socially and it would help his focus. After evaluating the horses and riders, the instructor that was managing the event told Jean that she had to get spurs. I was horrified and resisted. I said that if spurs were a prerequisite for participation, then I was pulling Gem out of the performance. LA calmed me down and showed me the type of spurs the instructor was talking about. It was not a Western spur with all the prickly points on it, but an English one. She guaranteed me that Jean had good balance and using spurs would not hurt Gem; using them on Gem would actually help get his attention faster, keep him focused and would eliminate the use of the crop. LA would be coaching Jean on how to use the spurs in our weekly lessons. I reluctantly agreed to let Jean try them.

Jean used spurs once a week on Gem for 6 weeks. I have to admit that I saw an improvement in his responsiveness when I watched the practices. He did wonderfully at the actual performance! He was great with the other horses, did not mind being squished into lines, didn't miss his cues and was not bothered by the audience. The event was a success and I couldn't have been prouder of my gentle giant at the end of the row, towering over the other horses. The instructor, who rides a police horse, had a particular fondness for Gem.

I checked the video I made of Gem when I met him for the first time. Megan, the lady who was selling Gem for the owner, was wearing English spurs when she was putting him through his paces. His previous owner rode him Western and wore western spurs. Could it be that Gem would only take direction seriously if it was punctuated with the slight poke of a spur?

After a particularly hard (good??) lesson recently, LA casually said that I could buy some small nub English spurs. What?! Really?! LA said my legs were much more quiet and I was ready. Three months ago I would never have entertained the idea of wearing spurs. But I have seen the result that they have on Gem. I think the request is clearer to him when spurs are involved and he responds accordingly. I am looking forward to learning how to use this tool. Hmmm, I wonder if there is a model that will make my feet look long and slender??? ;-)

What was I thinking.....?


  1. There are some pretty fancy looking spurs out there that could make your feet look like a million bucks. You'll have to model them when you get them.

    I've never used spurs though I've ridden horses that could have used the wake up call. One of the older horses at my barn has been used for lessons for so long that he's gotten used to "leg chatter." You really have to "shout" to get him to respond.

  2. I think I will be sticking to the basic English spurs! I can't get into too much trouble with a nub sticking out from my least I don't think I can... :-)

  3. As long as your able to keep your spurs out of the horse until you intend to use them it will be fine. They are a tool like the dressage whip and you will only have to nudge him.

  4. Hi wilsonc - I agree. Spurs are a tool and not to be over-used.

  5. I think as long as you learn to use the very small nub English spurs properly they won't hurt Gem. Like you said he may even listen better. You may only have to use them for a short time until he gets the idea of what you want when you cue him. Then you may be able to not wear them in the future if you don't want to. I don't wear them but normally would rely on a crop behind my leg gently when a cue was ignored. I always like to remind myself that they can feel a fly land on them so they can certainly feel my cues no matter how subtle they are. Good luck.

  6. Hello GHM! I don't intend on using them all the time, just during lessons for now. I am hoping that this is a tool that will help us communicate more efficiently and effectively. And, yes, the little nubs are the ones I intend on using. I would be too nervous using anything else! :-)

  7. Hi Wolfie!
    And thanks for supporting the "No to rollkur" action!
    Tricky decision :-)
    I believe that the more you ride Gem, the less need you will have of the spurs because you will be more effective in your seat and aids.

    I would like to share my favourite riding book with you, if it's OK. It is a wonderful book, which I read over and over again.
    Mary Wanless: Ride with your mind - Masterclasses.
    She explains the interaction between the rider and the horse in an excellent way.
    In each chapter of this book she describes a rider with a problem, where she gets down to the underlying cause and how to solve it. It is very down-to-earth, and full of useful information.
    You can find it on Amazon here:
    If you decide to buy it I will guarantee you’ll have many “Aha”-experiences, and a lot of fun testing it out together with Gem afterwards.

  8. Hello HoC! You are welcome re rollkur!

    My hope is that I will not have to always use spurs. I believe LA feels the same way. Right now, it's to help me learn to communicate while I improve in other areas (which I am!). I don't want to become dependent on them and I do want Gem to listen to me without them. I am still a naturalist at heart. :-) Thanks for the book info!!

  9. It is nice to have an aid there if you need it as long as you are a good enough riding to not to abuse it!!
    Enjoyed my visit!

  10. Hi Julie! Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed your site, too. Wow, side saddle. It looks beautiful!

  11. Hi there. I'm new to this blog, but I had to comment on this one.

    Starting a fight is the last thing I want to do, but I noticed you seem a bit judgemental about western spurs. They aren't any harder than english spurs when used correctly. The last part of the spur rolls (ha, I don't know what that part is called in english :D), so it's pretty soft to the horse's side. And just like with english spurs, there are soft and short ones and then there are longer and sharper ones.

    I don't like the "poke, poke, poke"-method, but that's not the only way western is ridden, there are many different styles.

    Again, I don't mean to sound agressive, but as a western rider in a country where most are english-riders, I hear these stereotypes about how cruel and sharp western spurs are WAY too often.

  12. Hello A.! I appreciate your comments! Everyone I ride with uses some version of Western spurs (long, short) and the horses don't mind at all. :-) As a matter of fact, most of the riders use their spurs with such subtlety that you can barely see the ankle movement! As a new rider, I am just starting to get my head around having to use artificial aids (crops, spurs) and frankly they still seem a bit scary to me. :-) I just need to get over it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and perspective. Hope to hear from you again.